History of Soul Food

As the scent of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, greens, and simmering cabbage hit the air, you have all the fixings for a soul food meal – a popular American cuisine usually linked to the African American community in the South. While the term, "soul food," has ties to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid 1960s, the origins of dishes, foods, and ingredients of this type of cuisine has a past that starts at the beginning of the 14th century.

The Origins of Soul Food

The history of soul food outside of Africa begins during the 14th century, where historians believe the early European exploration of the continent influenced some of the dishes seen today. As Africans encountered the food supplies of the Europeans, they embraced some items, as well as turnips from Morocco and cabbage from Spain. With slave trades throughout the early 1400s, various changes in the African diet took place, as their cooking traditions were transported to far-off lands with a new crop of edible possibilities. Eventually, some of the traditional foods of Africa would become commercial crops in the United States.

In America, the African slaves began to cook with new kinds of greens (collards, mustard, and kale), turnips, beets, and even dandelions. The slaves were also given pig's feet, beef tongue, ham hocks, chitterlings, pig ears, and tripe to cook with, as they were considered the unwanted meat products of the pig and cow. To flavor their recipes, they added garlic, thyme, onions, and bay leaves. Early soul food recipes also included wild game, rabbit, and raccoon that they caught on their own.

Once slaves became cooks within the plantation houses, soul food traditions evolved. In an instant, southern cooking transformed, as fried chicken, boiled white potatoes, and sweet potatoes were commonly seen on the dinner table. Puddings and pies utilized regional ingredients, such as berries, apples, peaches, and nuts. Traditional soul food saw leftover fish turn into "croquettes; stale bread become bread pudding; and the liquid of cooked greens transform into gravy. Early soul food recipes also highlighted individual delicacies centered on every part of the pig.

Although this deeply rooted cooking tradition has roots in the South, at least one soul food eatery is found in every African American community and beyond throughout the United States. High concentrations of soul food restaurants are often found in cities, such as Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans, Charleston, and St. Louis.

Typical Soul Food Dishes and Ingredients

Throughout the years, an assortment of typical soul food dishes and ingredients have become commonplace in the United States. Country-fried steak (chicken fried steak) is deep-fried battered beef often served with white gravy. This entrée joins a host of batter-fried entrees frequently prepared in soul food, such as chicken gizzards, chicken livers, catfish, and hog intestines (chitterlings). Pork and beef ribs, meatloaf, and oxtail soup are also popular main courses.

As for side dishes, soul food offers field peas, okra, butter beans, and sweet potatoes that are often made into "candied yams." Biscuits play an important role, as they are used to soak up or "sop" liquids and often accompany gravy dishes. Cornbread, hush puppies, and sweet bread with molasses are also typical trimmings of a meal. Additional soul food selections include grits for breakfast, macaroni and cheese, rice pudding, and the addicting appeal of a fresh pitcher of sweet tea.

Soul Food is enjoyed by many cultures and has evolved as a cuisine known for great southern food.


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